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The downtown waterfront area that planners have called the Inner Harbor will receive a new name befitting its historic importance -- Erie Canal Harbor -- thanks to some creative city and suburban fourth-graders.

The Buffalo News, along with Mayor Anthony M. Masiello and County Executive Joel A. Giambra, have agreed to refer to the redevelopment area as Erie Canal Harbor following a competition organized and sponsored by the newspaper.

"I fully concur with the selection of the 'Erie Canal Harbor' designation," said Masiello, who was one of the contest judges. "It shows ownership by our children and has past and future significance."

The winning name is a blend of two suggestions submitted by fourth-grade classes throughout Western New York. Invitations were sent last winter to 763 teachers, and 68 entries were received, said Cindy Sterner, educational services manager at The News.

The co-winners are a class at School 81 in Buffalo, taught by Marilyn Howe, and a class at Windermere Boulevard School in Amherst, taught by Jennifer Chomen. The School 81 students suggested "Erie Harbor," and the Windermere class came up with "Erie Canal Park."

" 'Erie Canal Harbor' was our top pick," said Giambra, who also was a judge. "We need to have a simple, clear signage and identification for our marketing materials. I am delighted that the committee agreed."

Erie Canal Harbor is an 11-acre site south of Memorial Auditorium that is being redeveloped by the state into a historic tourism attraction and waterfront recreational area. The more than $40 million project is scheduled to open in late 2004.

The area includes the old Commercial Slip, the western terminus of the historic Erie Canal where Gov. DeWitt Clinton dedicated the waterway in 1825. At one time it was a bustling port, where cargoes and settlers going west mingled with commodities returning east.

The wealth generated by the canal trade transformed Buffalo from a sleepy frontier village to one of America's largest cities by the end of the 19th century.

Plans call for the Commercial Slip to be restored and some of the old Central Wharf, cobblestone streets and warehouse foundations to be uncovered. The Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park also will be getting a new home.

City officials anticipate the public investment at Erie Canal Harbor also will trigger substantial private investment in the area.

The idea for a naming contest was the result of dissatisfaction among editors at the newspaper over the term Inner Harbor, an apparently generic reference used by planners in recent years with no historic basis.

"We in the community have placed a lot of funny monikers on things," said Edward L. Cuddihy, managing editor of The News. "(Editor) Margaret Sullivan and I decided we can't keep calling it the Downtown Inner Harbor Redevelopment Project."

The decision to create a competition for fourth-graders was intended to take advantage of the fact that New York history is part of their curriculum, Sterner said. The News prepared a booklet for teachers that contained a brief history of the Erie Canal, along with photographs and maps of the Buffalo harbor.

"The teachers were in awe because they were teaching the stuff and they really didn't have material," she said.

In addition to Masiello and Giambra, the judges were Stanford Lipsey, publisher of The News; William Seiner, executive director of the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society; and Susan McCartney, chairwoman of the Preservation Coalition of Erie County.

Among the other submissions were New Buffalo Harbor, Cobblestone Canal, Three Flag Harbor, Immigrant Harbor, Buffalo Waters, Erie Haven, Ellicott Harbor, New Millennium Harbor and DeWitt Clinton Memorial Harbor.

Students in the two classes whose suggestions were used will receive certificates from The News, and the newspaper plans to install a plaque at the Erie Canal Harbor honoring them upon its completion.

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